Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Stephen Harper: the tactics, the leadership

Where is the elevated style?

Headshot of Lawrence Martin

When we think of great leaders, certain characteristics come to mind. We think of a capacity to inspire, to define and chart the direction of the country. We think of political figures with personal magnetism and oratorical skills. We think of civility and honouring democratic principles - of someone who stands above the fray.

On Stephen Harper's list of strengths none of the above are particularly apparent. He's more sullen than charismatic, he's a wooden speaker, he doesn't take to talk of visions or great national endeavours and no one would call his command style of governance refreshingly democratic. He's more interested in maiming political opponents than pursuing high ideals.

Nor has this Prime Minister been able, as great leaders are, to post an achievement of high significance. He's had some modest successes. Nothing outstanding.

But while batting low in so many of the criteria, the Conservative leader has somehow developed the aura of being an impressive leader. It's an interesting interpretation.

Mr. Harper's attributes are as a great tactician, a high-quality manager. Add his imposing intelligence, the absolute clarity of mind. Keeping score, you might say he ranks high on two great-leadership components, low on the other four. He's also decisive, but decisiveness is no barometer of great leadership. What counts is the quality of the decisions. George W. Bush has been decisive. Our longest-serving PM, Mackenzie King, was remarkably indecisive. A procrastinator.

Much of the Harper leadership reputation results from his having no strong opponent and from opinion polls on leadership that, the pollsters concede, are biased toward any incumbent PM.

Entering the campaign, Mr. Harper wanted to build on his leadership advantage by showing a new side. With a quick overhaul, he would knock over one of his negatives, the image of him as a sinister, overly partisan operator. Ads showed a soft, caring family man - which, in fact, he is - and a benign and understanding human being. On top of this, came a new openness and chumminess with the media. Having run a closed shop, he was now sitting down at breakfast with reporters for roundtable chats.

But just as he was putting up the new image, he was undercut by a series of missteps, small things that in campaigns become big things. The tasteless puffin-bird advertisement spoke to the lack of class his attack dog office has often shown. His having to reverse himself on the Green Party debate decision spoke to his closed governing style. The over-hyped bit about an aide's e-mail on the motivations of the father of a fallen soldier spoke to his government's penchant for reducing everything to naked political self-interest.

All this was hardly in keeping with the impressive leader image. The old maxim about reaping what you sow was taking its toll. It wasn't supposed to be the Harper campaign tripping over itself in Week 1. That was the advance Liberal script.

On top of the little incidents, other troubling aspects of the Harper leadership style were on display. Following his statement that he would not be attacking opponents, he engaged in wild fear-mongering, saying the Opposition Leader's Green Shift would plunge the country into recession and even endanger national unity. Trying to attract votes in Quebec, Mr. Harper played politics with the re-announcement of the Afghan withdrawal deadline. He said categorically that the Liberal Leader would raise the GST - a completely false assertion. His office attacked St├ęphane Dion's use of a carbon-spewing airplane, forgetting to mention that the Dion office was purchasing carbon offsets to more than compensate - meaning the Harper campaign, which wasn't doing this, was the pollution culprit.

Some of the Prime Minister's work was no doubt tactically shrewd - that leadership quality he possesses in abundance - and may well pay off. But anyone hoping to see a new elevated style of leadership from the soft-blue sweater guy was not getting it. His office is still under the political direction of the dirt-throwing Doug Finley. A specialist in low-road politics, he has played on the PM's instincts for the same.

Great leaders uplift the spirit of the country. Great tacticians are capable of the same. Mr. Harper has an impressive, big mind. If he doesn't win a majority it will be because too often it operates - as is evidenced so far in this campaign - in small ways.

source: Stephen Harper: the tactics, the leadership
Globe and Mail, Canada

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